Monday, October 16, 2006

Part 9: Oliver and Brian meet their first angel

The case of the phantom odour was reopened in the morning when Brian discovered that the satchel containing their provisions was missing. He’d left it a few metres from his makeshift bed; had even gone to the trouble of weighing it down with heavy rocks in case a rogue animal tried to drag it away.
But the satchel was gone and the rocks were conspicuously positioned in a square formation, like the chalk-line of a dead body. Someone or something with opposable thumbs had carefully lifted the rocks off the satchel and moved them aside. There was no other way the satchel could have disappeared without the lads hearing anything.
“It was the sausage roll man,” Brian said, staring at the empty space between the rocks.
“At least we’ll know him when we find him,” Oliver said.
“Filthy bastard,” Brian spat. “Now what are we going to eat?”
“Don’t know,” Oliver muttered, still thinking about the crime. “It’s strange though…”
“Fuck, here we go,” Brian groaned. “Everything’s strange Oliver, it’s the afterlife not an episode of Law and Order. I dunno why you’re always trying to make sense of everything. Someone’s nicked our food, it’s a fucking bummer but it’s not particularly strange. So we gotta move on and try to deal with the problem, not stand around scratching our bloody arses.”
Oliver could not be swayed. “Just hear me out. Rolf said there was no crime in purgatory because all the really bad eggs were sent elsewhere. Yet here we are with a stolen satchel: a pretty rotten crime when you consider that the thief has left us to starve.”
“So?” Brian tapped his foot impatiently.
“So - based on what Rolf said, and the gutless characters we met in the casino, don’t you find it odd that someone in purgatory had the cold heart and the balls to steal our prize possession from under our noses.”
Brian took a moment to consider the logic. “Yup, I see what you’re saying. Meek, law-abiding people – what are they doing stealing bags? It’s strange.”
Oliver regarded him disapprovingly, picking the insincerity in his voice. “You don’t find it strange at all.”
“Damn it!” Brian cursed, his stomach rumbling. “Okay, I still don’t find it strange. Actually, you wanna know who’d steal that satchel from under our noses? I would. If I was out here by myself, lost, and hungry, I’d grab someone’s food and convince myself that I needed it more than they did. Shit, we virtually robbed Robbie the barkeep back at the casino and we live in purgatory, don’t we? There was nothing strange about that.”
Oliver frowned, not appreciating the argument Brian had thrown back at him. He didn’t like it because it sounded perfectly logical even though he knew in his gut that it was wrong.
“Okay, I take your point,” he conceded.
“So we can concentrate on getting food now?”
“Thank you. Alright, where do we start?”
“The river,” Oliver suggested. “It might be deep enough for fish now.”
“To the river,” Brian concurred.
“It’s weird though, the river.”
“Don’t mess with me when I’m hungry, Ollie.”
They’d been knee deep in water for nearly an hour and Oliver was convinced that there was nothing in the river but rocks, water and moss.
Brian reckoned he saw a silvery fish dart downstream when they’d first approached the river’s edge but Oliver suspected it was wishful thinking on the big guy’s part. Brian was on the verge of seeing cheeseburgers swinging from the trees and couldn’t be relied upon while his stomach was empty.
“Give up?” Oliver asked.
“A few more minutes,” Brian said, his eyes developing the glazed look of a round-the-clock porn addict.
“You said that more than a few minutes ago.”
“There’s food here,” Brian said simply. His hands were poised over the water’s surface, ready to pounce on the next fish that swam by.
Oliver shook his head and turned away, resolving to be more forceful about moving on the next time he spoke. He was hungry too; perhaps not as ravenous as Brian but certainly ready to devour a raw fish without worrying about the art of filleting.
His thoughts, however, remained distracted by the near-conflict in the casino and the theft of the food satchel. The longer he spent in purgatory, the more Oliver thought it was a jigsaw puzzle to piece together; not an abstract painting that you accepted as hopelessly bizarre. In particular, Oliver was encouraged that there were no absolutes: it was assumed that there were no women in purgatory but there were in fact some; and Rolf had described the inhabitants as passive, law-abiding folk even though there were clearly thieves afoot.
If there were no absolutes, Oliver pondered, then perhaps purgatory wasn’t an eternal prison after all. Perhaps there were cracks around the edges for likely lads to exploit.
His train of thought was cut short by a white light that winked in the corner of his eye. Oliver whipped around, frantically scanning the riverbank and the surrounding trees for the source of the flash.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“See what?”
“A white……oh fuck…..”
Since discovering he was dead, Oliver thought he’d handled the transition to the afterlife rather well (notwithstanding his initial collapse). He hadn’t allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the enormity of what he’d learnt in the past few days and he was proud of how quickly he’d adjusted to his new surroundings.
Thus far, however, Oliver hadn’t encountered anything that had seriously tested his perception of reality. The laws of physics were intact, he hadn’t encountered any green men or talking rabbits, and aside from the sudden age-loss and some oddly coloured grass, there’d been nothing particularly supernatural about purgatory. It was more of a surreal adventure than a wild fantasy.
That all changed when he saw his first angel.
Oliver’s jaw continued to drop as he watched the pale figure walk towards the river and pause at the water’s edge. The angel wore a tattered white robe that hung down to his bare feet, making him look like a shepherd rather than a divine being. In most respects he looked like a regular Joe: long, ratty hair that curled up the back, a prickly three-day growth, a pasty complexion and a healthy paunch. Certainly nothing like the beautiful, willowy angels from stained glass windows and Christmas cards.
What distinguished the figure from any other vagrant in a bath-robe was the white light that radiated from his body, like a personal force-field. The glow was soothing to the eye and as soon as Oliver glimpsed the angel’s aura, he was mesmerised.
“Come on,” the angel snapped, sounding remarkably like Jeremy Paxton. “Get out of there, the game’s up.”
“Bugger me,” said Brian when he turned to face the angel.
“No thanks – not allowed,” the angle replied flatly. “Come on, get out of the river. I won’t ask you again.”
Oliver and Brian, both hypnotised by the angel’s white light, obediently waded out of the river.
“All the way out,” the angel instructed. When the lads were standing on dry land, the angel’s expression hardened from tired indifference to annoyed. He leant towards them, sniffed, then groaned with frustration.
“We were going to wash after breakfast,” Brian protested.
The angel shook his head. “No, that’s not it,” he said with disgust. “Damn it.”
“Who were you looking for?” Oliver asked.
The angel regarded him with the jaded patience of a high school music teacher. “Sorry, I made a mistake. Forget you ever saw me.”
“As if,” said Brian, circling the angel and studying his back. “Hey, where are your wings?”
“Good question,” said the angel, “I must’ve left them at the coffee shop again. Better get over there before someone steals them.”
He turned to leave but Brian and Oliver rushed in front of him, blocking his path.
“Don’t go yet,” Oliver pleaded. “Tell us who you were looking for.”
“Were you serious about the wings?” Brian wanted to know. “Are they detachable?”
The angel rolled his eyes. “You’re not even supposed to know I exist. If I tell you who I was looking for, or why I don’t have pretty wings, I’ll be that much harder to forget.”
“Too late,” said Oliver. “It’s not like we’re going to forget the first time we saw an angel.”
“Who says I’m an angel?”
“We do,” Oliver and Brian rejoined.
A sliver of anxiety passed over the angel’s face but he recovered quickly. “No-one will believe you anyway. Goodbye.”
The angel had taken a few steps up the riverbank when Brian blurted, “We’ve got whiskey!” in a last ditch effort to stall him.
The angel paused, menacingly, and Oliver wondered what the penalty was for attempting to bribe an angel. He was preparing to defend Brian with the excuse “he’s only a New Zealander,” when the angel turned around with a half-cocked smile.
“You serious?”
“Dead serious,” Brian smiled, theatrically pulling a hip flask from under his belt and waggling it enticingly.
“Were you going to tell me about that?” Oliver asked pointedly.
“I forgot it was there! It was my emergency supply.”
“So the answer is no.”
“No….I mean yes I was going to tell you.”
“Ahem,” said the angel, suddenly right in front of them. “I might be convinced to answer a question or two if you’ll give me that bottle.”
“No way,” Brian said, putting the bottle behind his back. He was testing the theory that angel’s were messengers of God and were incapable of violence or dishonesty. “If you want a drink, you’ll have to drink with us.”
The angel glared at Brian, attempting to stare him down. When he realised he was getting nowhere, his shoulders slumped and he held out his hand.
“Okay, deal. But I get the first slug.”

Monday, September 18, 2006

Part 8: The lads encounter some surly locals and a phantom odour

Robbie the barkeep was sympathetic to the lads’ plight and was careful to keep his sceptical advice to himself. He knew that purgatory had a habit of reducing the most ambitious, optimistic men to tears but it was something the new arrivals had to work out for themselves. So when Brian asked, ‘where do the chicks hang out’ with unbridled enthusiasm, Robbie kept a straight face and answered without cynicism.
“In the city. Keep following the river north and you’ll be there in five days.”
“You’ve seen them? The girls?” Brian asked eagerly, like a twelve year old asking for the details of his older brother’s Friday night date.
“Sure. Everyone has at one time or another. Some of them have changed but there’s a core half-dozen that have been there as long as anyone can remember.”
“Are they hot?” Brian predictably asked.
“It depends on your taste.”
“Actually no; I don’t want to know. I want it to be a surprise.”
“You won’t be disappointed there,” Robbie said.
Oliver suspected Robbie was withholding information but he held his tongue. Curbing Brian’s enthusiasm at this point was like promising your dog a walk and then locking him in the laundry.
“You boys plan on going to the big city?” a loud Scot called out from one of the craps tables. It was obvious from the question, his tone, and the way he bared his brown teeth when he smiled, that the Scot was a complete wanker. He looked like a teenager now but Oliver knew that he would’ve died an old know-it-all, the sort of permanently drunk philosopher that roamed the bars scabbing cigarettes and half pints, forcing his semi-literate knowledge on patrons infinitely more well adjusted than he.
“Ignore him,” Robbie advised.
“You going to find yourself a wee wifey,” the Scot yelled, much to the delight of his two friends at the craps table who started to giggle like crazed mongooses. This set the drunken Scot off as well, and the casino was soon filled with the echo of their idiotic laughter.
Oliver was reminded of a certain situation involving Portsmouth fans that resulted in his untimely death. It didn’t give him a favourable impression of the men laughing. “What is this, a James Bond villains’ convention?” Oliver said, feeling confident in his twenty-two year old body’s ability to handle a rumble.
The laughter stopped; abruptly. The aggravating Scot looked uncertain, turning to his sidekicks for assistance.
“You don’t even get that?” Oliver asked, walking towards them, surprised and exhilarated by the fear in their eyes. The only time he’d been able to illicit real fear in another man was when he’d made a throat-cutting gesture to his colleague’s son in retaliation for an unprovoked middle-finger insult. And he wasn’t sure scaring the daylights out of a ten-year-old brat counted.
Before Oliver had a chance to build on his macho posturing, the Scot and his two friends ran out of the casino like fleeing elk. One of them even knocked over a poker table as he scampered for the door, scattering cards in the air. After the door slammed behind them, the half dozen punters in the casino went quietly back to their games.
“Way to go Oliver,” Brian said, clapping unsurely.
“What was all that about?” Oliver asked, allowing his chest to puff out just a little.
“You psyched them out, mate. You were like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.”
As much as he’d like to think he was a tough guy, Oliver wasn’t quite ready to believe Brian’s explanation. “Robbie?” he asked.
Robbie the bartender was busy polishing a glass that he’d hurriedly picked up from the already polished stack. He pretended not to hear.
“Robbie?” Oliver repeated, approaching the bar. “You okay?”
Robbie kept his head down. “Look, we don’t want any trouble,” he said without looking up.
Oliver and Brian exchanged confused glances. “We’re not causing trouble,” Oliver said. “You heard that guy, he was baiting me. I didn’t mean for him to run off like that.”
“Yeah, Oliver’s hardly a troublemaker,” Brian said. “I was only kidding about the Clint Eastwood thing.
“We’re not used to aggression round here,” Robbie explained. “You looked like you wanted a fight.”
“I didn’t want a fight,” Oliver insisted. “I was just sticking up for myself.”
Robbie backed away from the bar. “Please, I think you should leave. Your type is better off in the city.”
“We were going there anyway,” Brian said with disdain.
“I don’t get it,” Oliver said, still seeking elaboration. “I didn’t do anything, Robbie. Why are you acting is if I just pulled out a gun?”
“That was McElroy and his gang you chased off,” Robbie said, his voice quivering. “They’re the toughest men in the valley; no-one ever stands up to them.”
Brian scoffed. “You must be kidding, mate. I’ve seen housecats hold their ground better than those wimps.”
“Yeah, what makes this McElroy guy so tough? Have you seen him in a fight?”
“No,” Robbie admitted, thinking hard. “But he always trash talks the customers and scares them away.”
“And no-one says anything back?” Oliver asked, incredulous.
“Never. Not until now.”
“Why not?” Oliver demanded. “Are you afraid? Are you all passivists?”
Robbie dropped the glass he was ostensibly polishing, rattled by the forceful line of questioning. “I don’t know! We’re not used to confrontation, okay? Now would you please leave the casino. Consider your debts paid in full if you leave right now.”
“Sounds like a good deal to me,” Brian said, grabbing a bottle of whiskey for the road. “You don’t mind if we take this as well, Robbie. Since you’re wiping our slate clean. Yeah, and that leather satchel you keep behind the bar, we need something to carry our provisions in. Actually, better still, let me come back there and I’ll just grab what I need.”
With no resistance from Robbie who kept his eyes trained on the floor, Brian swung himself over the bar and started filling the satchel with the casino’s food and grog. When it was full, Brian clapped Oliver on the back. “C’mon mate, these girls want to be left alone.”
Oliver, still thoroughly confused by the sudden display of cowardice he’d just witnessed, allowed himself to be led out the door.
“That was weird,” Brian remarked to a bemused Oliver as they walked from the casino entrance towards the valley stream.
“Weird is an understatement. For the toughest men in town to turn tail and run like that. Something’s not right.”
“You can be pretty frightening when you get your knickers in a twist,” Brian said.
“Would you be frightened?”
“As if. I’d laugh my head off.”
While Brian’s thoughts were already fixed on the road ahead, Oliver continued to ponder the significance of McElroy and his mates’ sudden retreat. The abrupt transformation of their personalities – from strutting roosters to headless chickens - could not be explained by Oliver’s faint hint of aggression. He was on the lighter side of average build and he didn’t carry the steely-eyed menace of a seasoned fighter – anyone worthy of tough-guy status could tell that.
It was possible they were wary of the gargantuan Brian standing behind him but the numbers were still in their favour, it was hardly reason to throw away your reputation and pride.
No, there was something else going on at that casino. An angle or truth he couldn’t quite see yet, but with a few more clues it would come to him.
The valley stream eventually graduated from a modest trickle to the full blown river they’d been told about, complete with steep banks and water that appeared to be more than a metre deep. The louder rush of the current spurred them on despite their crashing hangovers and neither of them felt like stopping or slowing the brisk pace they’d set.
They managed to hike the entire first day with only a mid-afternoon stop for slugs of whiskey and to devour two more of Robbie’s cooked birds that Brian had nicked. As the sun set, they set up base camp in a small recess in the riverbank – just deep enough to provide shelter from the cool breeze that slowly funnelled through the valley at night.
They fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the crunchy leaf pillows, worn out from the long day’s trek and comforted by the memories of camping adventures from their earthly adolescence.
Both lads woke in the middle of the night for the same reason, and each silently blamed the other for the foul disturbance.
Neither wanted to give offence but Oliver thought he’d arrived at a non-confrontational solution to the problem. “You awake?” he whispered.
“Yes,” Brian replied testily.
“I was thinking; we should go for a swim and wash our clothes first thing tomorrow morning. We’ve haven’t changed since we got here and our underpants have probably developed their own eco-systems.”
“I washed my clothes in the stream two days ago,” Brian said. “Back at Youssef’s place.”
“Oh, okay,” Oliver said, fudging for another angle. “Well, maybe another wash couldn’t hurt. I’m sure you changed your clothes every day back on Earth.”
“Maybe you should be the one washing,” Brian suggested.
“Fair point,” Oliver said, thinking of a new tack. He made a point of sniffing under his arm; it smelt of his mouldy lemon BO but his familiar aroma was powerless against the nostril-curling stench that had woken him. “Pheeeeeeyewwwww,” Oliver groaned. “I do stink. Tell you what, the wind is quite mild tonight, I’ll move to the other side of this alcove so you don’t have to smell me. Tomorrow we’ll go for that swim.”
“Good idea,” Brian said, thankful that Oliver had owned up to his problem. His relief didn’t last long – a few minutes after Oliver had settled in his new patch Brian realised that the stench was thicker than ever.
“Bloody hell Oliver, I can smell you from here.”
Oliver jumped up and stormed back to the alcove, annoyed that his efforts to preserve Brian’s feelings had gone unnoticed. “You idiot, don’t you know your own smell.”
“It’s not me,” Brian said, incredulously.
“Well it’s definitely not me,” Oliver said. “My BO smells of mouldy lemon.”
“And I’m onion rings.”
Oliver pondered this. “You sure you’re not rotting sausage rolls dipped in cat pee.”
“I thought that was you.”
“No. Fuck no. I’d kill myself if I stunk like that.”
“What is it then?” Brian asked. “It wasn’t there when we fell asleep.”
“I don’t know. It’s definitely body odour though, in it’s most intense form. It’s inhuman but disturbingly human at the same time.”
“Yeah, a dog who’d been swimming in a sewer smells sweeter than that.”
“Actually, I think it’s fading now,” Oliver noted, his nose turned skyward.
Brian sniffed the air tentatively. “You’re right….thank God. I thought we were going to have a major problem there.”
“Still odd though.”
“Yeah,” Brian agreed, before confirming his concern by promptly falling asleep.
(to be continued)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Part 7: Oliver and Brian drown their sorrows before deciding on a course of action.

“How come you’re so old then?” Brian asked the silver-haired blackjack dealer who was raking in yet another round of chips from the luckless table. Brian was already down two hundred purgatory dollars and was preparing to hit Robbie the barkeep up for another loan. “That can’t be your ideal physical form.”
“Yeah, I reckon you must be sixty at least,” Oliver observed, twirling his last twenty dollar chip. Oliver wasn’t typically so tactless but the combination of some very strong beer and the shock of discovering that his problems getting a date on Saturday had just been magnified by a thousand had given him a fresh, devil-may-care attitude towards life after death.
“As a young man I weighed three hundred pounds,” the dealer explained in a well-practised speech. “I tried dieting, exercise, extreme saunas – but whenever I lost a few pounds I’d put it straight back on again. I thought I was born to be fat. But on my sixty-third birthday, my daughter gave me a book on the Atkins diet - you know, the high fat, low carb diet that all the Hollywood stars were into. I figured what the hell, if it doesn’t work, at least I get to eat KFC for dinner every night. Two months later I was down to one-eighty. I never looked or felt better.”
“Yeah, you got that Sean Connery look going on,” Brain complimented.
“That’s what my wife said,” the dealer beamed. “Of course, all that fried chicken and sausages meant my cholesterol level went through the roof. That’s why I ended up here a few months later.”
“Shame,” Oliver muttered, watching another useless hand flip over in front of him.
“Blackjack!” Brian exclaimed, pointing at his cards.
“That’s a pair of threes,” the dealer corrected.
“Oh,” Brian said, blinking heavily like his eyelids were filled with glue. “Damn that beer’s strong.”
“Ten percent,” the dealer confirmed. He cast a sympathetic eye over the lads’ severely depleted chips. “You boys sure you want to keep playing?”
“Hell yes,” Oliver said.
“Nothing else to do,” Brian agreed.
Oliver and Brain gambled deep into the night, the repetition of betting, losing and borrowing money helping to keep their minds off the harsh realities of their new land. They struck up conversations with the other players that came and went, picking up tips from the veterans, sharing their misery with the newer entrants.
Oliver was struck by the diverse backgrounds of the purgatory crowd but at the same time, there was a loose thread that connected them all – they were decent, (largely) law abiding men who had chosen not to believe in a higher power. And everyone agreed, particularly among the recently deceased, that being tripped up on this technicality was extremely unfair.
Not surprisingly, there was a deep resentment among purgatory dwellers towards organised religion and the sloppy way it had been marketed. That is: if the preachers had done their job properly, they wouldn’t be stuck in purgatory. Their grievances varied from the reasonable (prehistoric attitudes towards contraception, greed and corruption among religious leaders), to the plain ridiculous (hymns weren’t catchy enough, Sunday was the best day of the week to sleep in, you weren’t allowed to bring dogs into church unless you were blind).
“See I actually read the bible,” a property tycoon from Texas bemoaned. ”I came from the goddamn bible belt for chrissakes. And nowhere does it say that all the women go straight to heaven.”
“You’d think that would’ve been on the first page,” Brian said.
“Damn right!” the Texan exclaimed. “It should’ve been on the goddamn cover. Instead of that crap about what God did on the first day, and how he spent the afternoon on Thursday….it should’ve said ‘hey fellas, you better read this book and do everything it says ‘cause otherwise, it’s a lifetime of spanking the monkey for you’. That’s the sort of pitch that lures customers.”
“I’m not sure that’s the point,” Oliver hesitantly suggested.
”Screw the point! I’m pissed off!”
The men who’d been in purgatory for more than ten years were different: they went about their business with a quiet resignation, like they’d rationalised that eternity was an awfully long time to stay pissed off.
Intensely bitter or pathetically defeated – Oliver didn’t know which was more depressing.
By closing time, Oliver and Brian had lost two thousand dollars between them. They offered to work off their debts in labour but Robbie the barkeep, who’d seen it all before, gave them a room upstairs and told them not to worry – they had the rest of eternity to pay him back.
It was with heavy hearts that the two lads retired to bed. With no women, no money, and seemingly few prospects, the outlook for the next thousand years or so was grim. The industrial strength beer had offered only a temporary respite from the gloom, and the throb of a hangover was already closing in as their heads hit the pillow.
That night, before they sunk into a troubled sleep, they prayed for forgiveness.
Things Can Only Get Better was the most successful single by Howard Jones, a tragically-dressed synth-pop star who enjoyed a brief period of fame in the mid-eighties thanks to a combination of poor opposition (Wham! and Tears For Fears were also riding high in the charts), and an annoying knack for choruses that stuck to your frontal lobe like silly putty.
Oliver Tait, when he was thirteen and just getting into music in a serious way, regarded Mr Jones as a genius. He owned all his early records (albums, 7 inch singles, and 12 inch extended re-mixes, in the days when the re-mix was literally a mere extension of the original), wrote him obsequious letters via his many fan clubs, and opened a savings account with the sole purpose of buying a Roland synthisizer and creating his own electric masterpieces. It was only when he was beaten up for imitating Howard Jones’s wardrobe of black knickerbockers, sleeveless puffy t-shirts, and basketball boots with flouroscent laces, that Oliver rethought his choice of pop idol. Despite regarding Bono’s leather-and-tassles get-up of the day as equally homoerotic, he fell in line with the U2-worshipping lads at school and adopted the “synths are for poofs” mentality that allowed him to eat his lunch in peace.
The cloying melodies of Howard Jones had laid dormant in Oliver’s head for the best part of twenty years but in purgatory, they came rushing back with a vengeance. It was like his sweetly naive inner-child had been unconsciously brought to the surface to combat the surrounding doom and gloom.
“And do you feel scared, Iiieeeeee do,” he sung groggily from his bed, staring at the ceiling. “But I won’t stop and falter. And if we threw it all, a-wayyyy. Things can only get better.”
“What the fuck was that?” Brian demanded.
Oliver lifted his head and frowned at the sight of Brian sitting at the end of his bed “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you to get up. I repeat – what the fuck was that?”
“Howard Jones. You wouldn’t know it.”
“Thank God for that. It sounded something the Backstreeet Boys rejected.”
“It’s uplifting.”
“Suit yourself,” Brian said dismissively, extinguishing an argument he would’ve normally pursued. His visit had a purpose.
“Okay, what’s on your mind?” Oliver asked, swinging his legs out of bed.
“I’ve got a plan,” Brian said.
“Can I have my hangover spew before you start? You might get offended otherwise.”
“Nope, it can’t wait any longer,” Brian said, sucking in a breath so deep that Oliver felt guilty about his sarcastic remark. “I had a rough time last night, Ollie. I’ve never felt so depressed, that news from Rolf really messed me up. I’ve been thinking about it all night, trying to work out a purpose for my new life. ‘Cause I reckon the only way to stay sane is to look at the cup as half full rather than half empty, y’know?”
“I agree.”
“So I starting thinking: what’s the one thing that tipped me over the edge, that made me think purgatory is another name for hell.”
“The lack of female companionship.”
“I wouldn’t have put it quite like that but yeah, the lack of women.” Brian stood up and began pacing the room, making sure he explained himself properly. “If there’s no hope of finding a woman and having a family then life’s going to be just like last night –a lot of mucking around and drinking but nothing moving you forward, nothing to make you get up in the morning.”
“I think that’s what purgatory is supposed to be like,” Oliver said. “Otherwise it would be too much like heaven.”
“Maybe. But then I thought, okay – what would make me get out of bed in the morning. And the answer’s simple: a woman. Or at least the possibility of a woman.”
“You’re arguing in circles. You’re saying you want the impossible.”
Brian spun on his heels and jabbed a finger at Oliver. “No! Not impossible. You saw a crazy Frenchwoman. Rolf said there were a few in purgatory.”
“He said nine or ten at the most. Compared to how many men in purgatory. Millions?”
Brian shrugged. “Who knows? Like Rolf said, people disappear. Maybe there’s only a few thousand.”
Oliver could see where Brian’s logic was heading – he’d been thinking along similar lines - but he let his Kiwi companion finish his diatribe uninterrupted.
“What I’m basically saying is….I need a purpose in life. A quest. And I don’t care if it takes me a thousand years, I’m going to find one of those ten women in purgatory and make her my wife. Maybe start a family.”
“I’m not sure if procreation works in purgatory.”
“Fuck it, I don’t care!” Brian barked with uncharacteristic froth. “I told you, I need a purpose in life!”
”Steady on, I was trying to be constructive.”
“I’m not sure constructive works in purgatory,” Brian snapped, mocking Oliver’s sharp pronunciation.
“If you want my opinion, your plan stinks,” said Oliver, who was good at taking a joke except when people implied he was uptight, which he knew he could be, and it pissed him off when people noticed.
“At least I’ve got a plan,” Brian said.
“Who says I don’t?”
“Well? Spit it out then.”
Oliver shook his head in disgust, as if Brian’s stupidity and mistrust were beyond belief. To buy more time, he threw in a chuckling scoff, followed by a prolonged tut-tut, then an exasperated look skywards.
“It’s a secret,” he said finally.
“Like your mother’s testes?” Brian retorted.
Oliver grinned. As he’d noted before, it was impossible to stay mad at Brian for long. “You’d walk over hot coals for my mum right now. She’d have you twisted round her little finger.”
“Mate, I wouldn’t care if she did have testes. As long as it was a certified genetic disorder.”
They laughed heartily at first, then sheepishly when they realised one of them would have to fill the looming silence with an apology.
Oliver, who felt guilty about appearing to belittle Brian’s plan, took the initiative. “Look, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. Purgatory will quickly turn into hell if every day is like Sunday. I’m just not feeling as rushed about the next step as you are. I’m still getting over the shock of being dead - but not dead.”
“I feel dead though Oliver. I wasn’t made to be alone…not in a biblical sense, anyway. Don’t you want to get married…have children?”
“Of course,” Oliver said, though it was a trigger reaction. He knew that Brian had a different version of happiness than he did. For Oliver, it wasn’t the doting wife and carving the Christmas turkey lifestyle that inspired him. It didn’t turn him off - it was quite a nice dream in many ways – but it wasn’t what badgered his soul.
“Then my plan’s the only plan,” Brian surmised. “If we want to be happy, we have to go after those ten woman in purgatory.”
“Okay, don’t get angry. But isn’t that a bit like some loser saying his dream in life is to win lotto? You’ve got to consider the odds.”
“I’ve considered them, and I’m taking my chances.”
Oliver knew that Brian hadn’t considered the odds and was acting purely on a heady cocktail of sentimentality and horniness. There were, however, few better plans that he could think of. At the very least, the mere glimpse of a woman would be a novel attraction, like going to see the Pyramids.
“When do you want to set off?” Oliver asked.
Brian literally did a cartwheel within the confines of the single room and he was fortunate that his damage was limited to a bruised hip.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Part 6: Rolf reveals some of the afterlife's secrets, including its biggest drawback.

The back area of the casino was like a one-and-a-half-star bed and breakfast, the sort of rat infested dive that Oliver used to stay in when he was a backpacking student. A narrow staircase led to a maze of twisting corridors that were lined with numbered doors, the ceilings getting increasingly lowered as they snaked their way deeper into the hillside.
The need for ear plugs was immediately obvious: the halls shuddered with the off-key voice of a drunken man singing what once might have been a medieval folk song. It stopped as soon as Oliver rapped on door number seventeen.
“Hello, Rolf?” Oliver called, knocking again.
”Go away,” the reply came in German-accented English.
Brian rattled the door handle but it was locked, his efforts prompting a string of abuse from the other side.
“We’ve got a drink for you,” Oliver said. “Robbie sent us up. He said you have to talk to us otherwise he’s calling in your tab.”
Silence. Then the sound of footsteps and locks being unbolted. Oliver and Brian took a step back.
They needn’t have bothered. Rolf was slightly built, about five-and-a-half feet tall, and an adolescent. No more than sixteen.
“You’re just a kid,” Brian observed.
“I’ve seen more sunrises than you, sheepfucker,” Rolf spat back in his absurdly husky baritone, snatching the whiskey from Oliver and shambling back into his room.
“That voice is creepy,” Brian whispered as they followed Rolf inside.
Rolf’s claustrophobic room consisted of a small bed, a table that housed some filthy glasses, and several large piles of book. It stunk of whiskey and smoke, exacerbated by the lack of windows or ventilation.
Rolf sat on the single bed, his feet dangling off the side. He’d already drained the double shot of whiskey and was busy rolling a cigarette. With his grubby young face and raggedy clothes, Rolf looked like a character from a Charles Dickens’ novel.
Oliver and Brian perched themselves on some books and waited patiently for Rolf to give them his attention.
“You made that up. About the bar tab,” Rolf said, wetting the edge of the cigarette paper with his tongue.
“How’d you know?” Oliver asked.
“Because Robbie needs me. I’m the only reason anyone comes to this shit-hole.”
“Are you the Oracle?” Brian enquired with an exaggerated sense of wonder.
“No, I’m not the Oracle,” Rolf said pointedly, not bothering to hide his disdain. “The Matrix was a work of fiction, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“How do you know about The Matrix if you’ve been here so long?” Brian posed. “That movie only came out a few years. ago”
“Because for the past few years everyone who has come through that door has asked me if I’m the Oracle, or if I have any blue pills so they can go back to their normal life, or where the human pods are located. When I ask for an explanation they start quoting lines from The Matrix, which I initially thought must have been a documentary. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was a Hollywood movie.”
“I was only kidding about the Oracle,” Brian said defensively, but his reddened cheeks suggested otherwise.
“Well you must be one of the smart ones,” Rolf said.
“Are you going to help us?” Oliver asked, detecting another brick wall.
“Of course I will,” Rolf said, surprising them both. “I’ve got nothing better to do and my singing voice appears to have abandoned me tonight. Fetch me another drink and I’ll tell you everything I know.”
When Brian returned with the remains of the whiskey bottle, the education commenced. As Rolf spoke, the authority and resonance of his voice gradually overshadowed his childish appearance, and Oliver began to see him as a man rather than a petulant brat – something Brian couldn’t quite get his head around.
“I’m assuming that you know nothing about why you’re here or how you got here – apart from the indisputable fact that you’re dead. Naivety is not necessarily a liability because nothing is certain and many of the popular theories you will hear are pure speculation. There are, however, a number of undeniable truths that I have observed during my time here.”
“Oooooh. Can we ask questions?” Brian asked with the exaggerated enthusiasm of a playschool presenter.
“No,” he said flatly. “Firstly, this is purgatory or something very much like it. Between heaven and hell, if such extremes exist. The land is neither harsh nor gentle. The weather pleasantly warm but never hot. Everything, you may have noticed, is in between. That includes the people - they are caught between good and evil. For example, I’ve only just met you but already I know the kind of life you led. You were blessed with good health and intelligence but were too lazy to fulfil your potential. You were loyal to your friends but didn’t have the willpower to afford your girlfriends the same courtesy. You opposed fascist regimes, cruelty to animals and world poverty – yet you only donated money when there was a benefit concert attached. You gambled, drank too much, preferred to watch the Match of The Day replay instead of going to church…”
“…Okay, we get the picture, Oliver interrupted, mildly insulted. “We’re scum.”
“Not scum - just ordinary,” Rolf said with a shrug. “Purgatory is the land of ordinary men.”
“But what about Youssef,” Brian said. “And Ming. They’re these ultra-religious guys we were staying with and they pray all the time. I can’t imagine them sleeping around or blowing their pay-check on the ponies.”
“They’re like that now,” Rolf clarified. “Purgatory is spilling over with born-again Christians, Buddhists, Taoists and Hare Krishnas. They see it as their only way out, their ticket to the next level. Everyone arrives an atheist but it doesn’t take long to realise that there’s something deeper at work than the theory of evolution. You won’t find a genuine Moslem, Jew or Christian here: they’re with their respective Gods, in their respective heavens. That’s why purgatory is predominantly Anglo Saxon – the belief in a higher being is the norm for most other races. Despite the fact we’re all fundamentally decent people, our denial of faith has consigned us here.”
“White America believes in God,” Brian pointed out.
“And you won’t find many Americans here, at least not as many as you’d expect. One of the few blessings, you might say. The Irish, too, are few and far between.”
“What about the Chinese?” Oliver asked. “They’re not religious people.”
“Correct – but there aren’t any here. I don’t know why, perhaps God rewarded them for all the hard work. No, this version of purgatory is dominated by white men from cold climates. I could count the number of Asians and Africans I’ve met on one hand.”
“But what’s wrong with here?” Oliver asked. “If you’re forever young, the neighbours are friendly, and you have enough food and water, you’re three quarters of the way to being happy.”
“Would you be happy?”
“Not me, personally. But I’m used to football matches and Playstations and internet pornography. Anyone born before the twentieth century would think purgatory is a great place.”
Rolf, who spoke like he had a hook in Oliver and Brian’s mouths that he could yank at any time, scoffed with contempt. “It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes newcomers to work it out.”
Oliver and Brian looked at each other.
“Think about it,” Rolf said. “You said before that purgatory has everything you need to be comfortable: food, water, shelter. What’s missing though? What else would you need to be truly happy?”
The penny dropped immediately. “Women,” they said in unified dread.
“Women,” Rolf confirmed solemnly. “It’s what separates this place from upstairs. This is, quite literally, a land of ordinary men.”
Brian fell off his pile of books, reeling from the shock.
Oliver’s expression was puzzled. “That’s not true though,” he protested. “I saw a woman the first day I was here. A crazy Frenchwoman.
“Wait a sec. So there are some women?” Brian asked hopefully from the floor.
“Let me explain,” Rolf sighed, taking another slug of whiskey to prepare himself. “One man’s purgatory can be another woman’s heaven. There are some women here - nine or ten at the most. My belief is that they are here by request, the fulfilment of a deeply held fantasy. The women in purgatory are treated like goddesses, they never grow old, and they can choose their lovers at will. Living like a princess may not be heaven for every woman but for some, it is a pleasant way to spend eternity.”
“So, the rest of the girls went straight upstairs?” Brian asked doubtfully. “Because some of my exes were into some nasty shit – stuff that even I wouldn’t do.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Rolf said. “Some believe that there is a parallel version of purgatory where hordes of women fight over a few fortunate men. Others say that the gates to heaven were opened to all women in exchange for millions of years of oppression and laundry duty.”
“Bloody hell,” Brian said, nudging Oliver. “You should have nabbed that crazy Frenchwoman when you saw her.”
“No wonder she was excited,” Oliver said ruefully. “She was weird though – she looked twenty-one but dressed like my grandmother.”
“She probably was,” Rolf said. “Everyone in purgatory reverts to their ideal physical self. The young Frenchwoman probably died an old woman.”
“How come you look fourteen, then?” Brian asked. “Did you get fat when you were older?”
“No, sheepfucker,” Rolf said. “ I had the twin misfortunes of being a late developer and dying on my sixteenth birthday. This is as old as I know.”
“How old are you now, Rolf?” Oliver asked respectfully.
“I’ve lost count – and age is irrelevant in this place. But to give you some perspective, Richard Wagner was a childhood friend.”
Oliver and Brian nodded, awaiting further information.
“He was a nineteenth century composer,” Rolf explained.
“I thought he was an actor,” Brian said. “That’s why I was confused, because he seemed much older than sixteen in most of his movies.”
“No, you’re thinking of Robert Wagner,” Oliver corrected. “The guy with the eye-patch in Austen Powers…..and he was in that seventies detective show.”
“Yeah,” Brian said, getting excited. “He was married to that foxy older girl. It was on in the afternoons, I used to watch it when I wagged school.”
The conversation was cut short by Rolf clearing his throat, purposefully. “Excuse me gentlemen. If my ruminations on the mysteries of life after death are boring you, I think I’ll turn in.”
“No,” Oliver pleaded. “We’re sorry, you’ve been very helpful and we’re keen to learn more.”
“I’m afraid not,” Rolf said, lying back on his bed. “The bottle is almost empty and I’m about to lose consciousness.”
“Just a few more questions,” Oliver insisted.
“At your leisure,” Rolf said, closing his eyes. “I won’t hear you soon.”
“Why does everyone speak English so well, even the foreigners?” Brian butted in.
“When you have lots of different nationalities living in the same area, you need a common language. English was the default choice, much like it was on Earth.”
“How do we get to heaven?” Oliver blurted before Brian could ask another irrelevant question.
“Take the second right after the fruit shop. How should I know?”
“Okay… you know anyone who’s escaped purgatory?”
“People have disappeared,” Rolf mumbled, fading fast. “Don’t know where they go.”
“How did you die?” Brian blurted, prompting an angry glare from Oliver.
“Hypo…..thermia” Rolf managed, before his head lolled to the side and he began snoring loudly into his pillow.
“He’s tuckered out, the poor little bugger,” Brian said.
“Jesus Brian. Our last question and you ask how he died?”
“What. You weren’t curious?”
“Not particularly. Not half as curious as I am about how we’re going to spend the rest our days with only our right hands for company.”
Brian attempted to laugh. “C’mon, you think he was serious about the no girls thing?”
But they both knew Rolf wasn’t joking – a century of abstinence was written all over his knotted little face.
With growing horror they sat, contemplating a future without women.
Oliver thought of Siobhan, the girl he always thought of when he remembered the past or imagined the future. The way her hair smelt of apple shampoo, her sexy giggle when he touched the gloriously ticklish skin on the back of her thighs, the sultry pout she put on when he objected to renting yet another Jennifer Lopez movie, her hands patiently massaging his shoulders when he was hungover and grumpy. Part of the reason he’d been such a hopeless boyfriend over the past eight years was because he was constantly searching for someone who could hold a candle to Siobhan. In a city of eight million women, he hadn’t come close. What chance did he have with nine or ten?
Brian was going through a different form of torture – desperately trying to recall the physical details of every woman he’d slept with to ensure he had an eternity’s worth of masturbation material. However, in his panic and fear, he inexplicably kept coming up with an image of Bette Midler that only got stronger the harder he tried to shake it from his head.
On the verge of tears, Brian offered a solution to their anguish.
“Let’s get drunk.”
(to be continued)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Part 5: Oliver and Brian discover a casino in the middle of nowhere

Oliver was in good spirits for someone who'd recently been beaten to death. The heavy rain had passed, smothered by a uniformly blue sky that rolled out like a carpet within minutes. The temperature was back in the high twenties and while Oliver's forehead was beading with sweat, it felt healthy to perspire from heat and exercise rather than being crushed in an overcrowded tube.
Brian's cheerful demeanour was also a pleasant change from the headache-inducing Youssef. Despite the infinite range of heavy topics that had recently presented themselves, they talked mostly about the simple things in life: family and friends, crap cars they used to own and the Italian ones they dreamed of, the virtues of rugby union versus football. It was only when Brian wistfully mentioned that they were unlikely to see another game of either football code that the triviality of their conversation hit home. Eventually, they would have to find new subjects for small talk.
They'd decided to continue through the valley, away from the unerring grassland that Oliver had trekked through the previous day. Their plan was to follow the stream till they reached a river or lake, figuring that a town was more likely to be built around a large body of water. It was, as Brian repeatedly said during lulls in conversation, as good a plan as any.
They tramped through the day with scarcely a blade of grass altered in the vista. At dusk, the hills on either side extended to the horizon just as they'd done at dawn. There'd been the occasional collection of tress or smudge of shrubbery along the way but the big picture remained the same.
“Long valley,” Brian observed for the sixth time (Oliver had been counting).
“Too fucking long,” Oliver replied.
“We need fooooood,” Brian said for the umpteenth time (Oliver had lost count).
“Let's stop and think,” Oliver said warily. His enthusiasm had been sapped by the daylong trek and he was beginning to wonder if he'd ever see a coastline again. He squinted into the half-light, looking for anomalies in the landscape. “There must be food around here somewhere.”
“What's grass like to eat?” Brian asked, clearly suffering more than Oliver.
“Not good.”
“Cows eat it,” Brian pointed out. “And sheep.”
“I forget - which one are you?”
Brian was too pre-occupied to bite at Oliver's sarcasm. “That grass looks okay to me.”
“Fine. Eat the grass.”
Brian didn't need any more encouragement and fell straight to his knees, ripped off a chunk of the unfeasibly lime-green grass, and shovelled it in his mouth. After the first chew he spat it out straight out.
“Ugggh. It tastes like….”
“….Nah, worse. Warm pineapple.”
“That's disgusting.”
“I'm not kidding mate,” Brian said, shoving the offending grass towards Oliver's tightly sealed mouth. “Taste it.”
“Get that away from me,” Oliver said, jerking his head away like he was being asked to eat cyanide. “I told you…”
“…You told me to eat it,” Brian complained.
“Any moron could tell I was being facetious. Warm pineapple - Jesus that's harsh. Obviously we're not supposed to eat the grass.”
“Well what then? I'm starving.”
“There's some juicy leaves over there. I think they're carrot soup flavoured.”
Brian's eyes widened with excitement before he realised Oliver was joking. “This is serious mate, we need to eat.”
“I know, I know. Let's put our thinking caps on. It's lush land, things are growing…”
“What about the stream, there might be prawns?” Brian suggested.
“We've been drinking from the stream all day. I haven't seen any prawns.”
“Yeah but it's almost dark now.”
“What are you saying? That they're nocturnal prawns?”
“I'm trying to be creative, mate.”
“Sorry, you're right,” Oliver apologised. “I'm hungry, too. There must be something round here we can use.”
They scanned the ground below, then peered into the hills and trees, before glancing up, hoping that a chicken wing would fall out of the sky. The combination of looking skyward and thinking about chicken wings gave Brian his brainstorm.
“Birds,” he said.
“I thought about that,” Oliver said, eyeing one of the magpie-like birds that ruled the roost in the sky. It was the only sign of wildlife he'd seen in purgatory. “How do we catch them though?”
“Not the birds - their eggs,” said Brian, already running towards the nearest tree.
A few mangled trees and a dozen expletives later, Oliver and Brian had destroyed a large chunk of the area's vegetation but hadn't managed to locate an elusive birds' nest. It wasn't for lack of trying - they'd tried shaking the trunk, sending Oliver up the spindly branches to fish around with his hands, hurling rocks at the uppermost twigs - there were just no nests.
The hungry lads, however, deduced that birds couldn't exist without a home, and kept on searching despite their fatigue, frustration and growing collection of scratches.
Their persistence paid off: it was when Oliver was clamped onto a particularly fragile trunk that their luck changed. He'd already shredded most of the leaves from the put upon tree and couldn't see any sign of nesting in the naked branches above.
“I'm coming down,” he told Brian.
”Go higher. I think I see something.”
“You do not, it's almost pitch black.”
“This might be our last chance,” Brian pleaded.
Oliver weighed the options. He was extremely doubtful that climbing further up the swiftly tapering trunk would reap any benefits apart from a possible broken hip. He was already near the top and the prospect of falling twenty feet towards a ground he could no longer see didn't excite him. However, their chances of finding food would disappear with the last of the fading light.
He had to give it a shot.
“Brian, I'm going higher but I want you to catch me if I fall”
“I can't see bugger all,” Brian reassured. “But okay, I'll catch you.”
“Just shuffle round to where you hear the leaves rustling.”
“Will do.”
Oliver bravely began to inch his way up the model-thin tree, trying not to think about how his legs were able to wrap around the trunk three times over. His eyes lit up when he spotted a small cluster of twigs and leaves a few feet away that might, possibly, be home to a nest.
“See anything?” Brian asked impatiently.
“Maybe. Hold on.”
Oliver cautiously pulled himself up and knocked the twig cluster with the back of his hand. As the nest successfully tumbled to the ground and Brian whooped with delight, he felt the trunk gradually bend under his weight like a pole-vaulters vault.
“Brian?” he said, realising he was seconds from falling.
“There's no eggs in here!” Brian complained.
“Brian!” Oliver yelled. The fibres of the trunk splintered and cracked as his tree gave way but just before he fell, Oliver caught sight of an unnatural light that was totally incongruous with the surroundings.
It was tucked against a hill about a half-mile away but the bright red letters, illuminated by flames, jumped out from the dark background like they were in 3D.
Oliver didn't even notice falling feet-first through the leaves, nor the collision between his arse and Brian's head, nor landing awkwardly on his side and cracking a rib. He was too excited by the red sign in the middle of nowhere.
A sign that read, impossibly: C-A-S-I-N-O.
“Are you sure it's a casino?” Brian asked, pulling Oliver to his feet.
“That's what the sign said. It's not far, just over a rise up there. Maybe half an hour's walk.”
“They'll have food. And beer.” He put a hand on Oliver's shoulder to steady himself, like he'd just realised he was holding a winning lottery ticket. “Shit Oliver, there might even be women.”
“And you're still standing here?”
Brian howled like a wolf, unable to contain his excitement.
The prospect of food, booze and girls put a spring in the lads' step as they stumbled blindly towards the casino sign. Oliver was covered in bruises and the jarring on his cracked ribs made him wince with every stride, yet his spirits were soaring. If purgatory had a decent casino - and he could indulge in the soft-core sins of sex, gambling and liquor - then eternity was okay by him.
But Oliver's excitement was nothing compared to Brian, who was battling so many cravings that he couldn't decide what to do first. He juggled the activities around a number of times but eventually settled on food, followed by a decent bout of sex, then alcohol and gambling. Oliver, who hadn't had sex in a fortnight and thought a few more hours wouldn't hurt, was gunning for food, then copious amounts of alcohol and gambling, and topped off, perhaps, by sex.
“Eh?” exclaimed Brian. “What do you mean - perhaps?”
“I'll skip the sex if I have to pay for it.”
“Of course you'll have to pay, you're not that good looking. They're running a business.”
“It's not a wild west saloon. The girls are probably just barmaids and waitresses, or regular customers like us.”
“We'll see,” said Brian, sticking to his vision of what a proper casino in purgatory should be like.
When the lights of the casino came into view, it was even more impressive than they'd imagined. Naked torches marked a path to a massive wooden door, perhaps ten feet high, which was cut into the side of the hill. The casino sign Oliver had spied from afar was made up of red poppy-like flowers arranged on the hillside, thousands of them, which flickered and shimmered in the flame-lit night.
This was no back-street speakeasy, Oliver thought as he followed Brian up the path and soaked up the atmosphere. After two days of endless space and untouched grassland, the tawdry trappings of modern civilisation were a sight for sore eyes.
Brian heaved open the door before Oliver had a chance to look for a knocker. As they walked in, smiling nervously, every set of the eyes in the room turned to look at them. It might have been daunting if there were more than a dozen people in the casino.
The customers noted their presence with indifference and slowly turned back to their games.
“I think they spent all their money on the entrance,” Oliver noted.
“It'll be alright,” Brian said, still clinging to his vision.
The casino room was just a small, squash court sized space with a handful of elevated stone slabs masking as tables. Only two of the tables were occupied: at one, five young men were playing a boisterous game of craps with wooden dice; at the other, a man wearing a cowboy hat was playing blackjack against the house with the speed of an aggrieved checkout operator.
“Over there,” Oliver said, spotting the comforting sight of a man with an apron cleaning glasses behind a counter. They were at the bar in a flash.
“Hello lads,” the bartender greeted in a cheery Irish accent.
“You paddies run the bars here as well?” Oliver quipped.
The barman chortled politely. “I'm afraid not, there's not many of us round here. Good Catholics and Protestants that we are”
“Food,” Brian grunted.
Oliver was about to apologise for his friend's rudeness but the bartender had already disappeared behind the counter, emerging a split second later with two cooked birds that he slapped on a wooden board. He then pulled a butcher's knife from inside his waistcoat and quartered them.
“Dig in.”
The next few minutes were a blur of eager hands and gnawed bones as Oliver and Brian set about replacing a day's worth of burnt calories. The bartender chatted to them while they ate.
“Everyone comes in through the countryside you see. I'm not sure why - that's just the way it's always been. And they've usually been walking for days so I always keep a roasted magpie in reserve so you don't have to wait for the stove to heat up. I must say though, it's been very slow of late. You're the first newcomers I've seen in a month.” He paused to laugh at Brian who was snapping the stripped bones apart and greedily sucking the marrow. “Steady on their big man, you'll give yourself indigestion.”
After demolishing half his magpie, Oliver suddenly remembered his manners and thanked the bartender for his generosity.
“You're welcome, I was in the same boat myself once. Jesus how long ago was that - it feels like twenty years or more but I can't be sure.”
“So you were a child when you came here?” Oliver asked, noting Robbie's youth.
“Child - no. I was an old man. Have you not figured out the age thing yet?”
“I noticed the age reversal thing, I dropped ten years overnight.”
“Sure, but you also don't age while you're here.”
Brian looked up from his marrow, juice dripping from his chin. “How does that work?”
“How does anything here work?” Robbie shrugged. “I couldn't say. It just does.”
“Say Robbie,” Oliver said. “We've got a million questions because we really don't know anything at the moment. We don't even what this place is called or if we're supposed to be here. Do you think you can help us?”
“Well I can help you with the name - you're in purgatory. At least that's what everyone here calls it. If you walked from the valley, you were in southern purgatory, the grassland country. This is south-central purgatory. It used to be a real dump but now there's quite a few bars and cafes opening up so it's getting more attention, particularly if you're looking for a bit of value.”
”But you're not interested in the property market are you? You want to know why you ended up in this place when you died. And why you've got the body of a young man again.”
Oliver nodded eagerly.
“I'm not qualified to say.”
“But you've been here twenty years,” Brian said.
“That qualifies me even less. “No, you lads need to see Rolf.”
“Rolf. Who's he?”
“Rolf's been here much longer than me, longer than anyone I know. He can explain things a lot better than I can. He's upstairs at the moment, room seventeen.” Robbie pointed to a small back door at the rear of the casino.
“Are there any women up there?” Brian asked, his hunger pangs almost satisfied.
Robbie grimaced. “You lads really are fresh off the boat. You should talk to Rolf, I can't explain things like he can. He's a grumpy old bastard but if you give him a drink and tell him I sent you, he'll be okay.”
“Is he like the Oracle,” Brian asked, wide-eyed.
“My advice? Don't ask him that. And wear these,” Robbie advised, handing each of them two squishy knuckles of foam.
“Ear plugs,” Oliver guessed.
“Yeah. The echo can be deafening back there.”
(to be continued)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Part 4: Oliver comes to terms with his death and decides on a travelling companion.

Oliver spent the night propped up against a tree, trying to come to grips with the idea that he was dead. Brian was right – the pain from those meaty blows was too real, too visceral, to be part of some imagined universe in his head. The events of the past day, while truly bizarre, were not the improbable, random occurrences of dreams. His feet weren’t stuck in quicksand, time passed chronologically, and no one had turned into his scary Aunt Helen in the middle of a conversation.
Thus, while the grass was slightly off colour and he’d woken up with the body of a twenty-two year old, by dream standards the past day had been surprisingly normal. Whatever world he was in, it felt as real as yesterday when he was happily watching Fulham beat Portsmouth with his buddies. As real as any day he could remember.
Then there was also the matter of the four people he’d met so far. A crazy woman who spoke flawless French, a confused guru who thought he was black, a jolly Kiwi who enjoyed using him as a punching bag, and whatever Ming was. These were strange, foreign people – not amalgams of figures from his childhood or important people in his life. They were more like a random selection of the recently deceased.
Realising the flaws in his coma argument, Oliver allowed his brain to accept, on a provisional basis, that he was dead. The next question was: how did he feel about that?
The overwhelming emotion was regret; the mourning of a life wasted. He’d planned on making up for the slothful indulgence of his twenties with a more focused, goal-oriented decade in his thirties. That was the decade he’d planned to make his fortune, get married, start a family, write his memoirs. If he was dead at thirty-one, he had no legacy. His life would be forgotten before it had a chance to begin. That was fucking sad.
He was also sad about leaving his parents, even though they’d never been particularly close. Oliver suspected they’d even breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t his older brother Henry who’d croaked. Henry was a City broker who had few admirable qualities apart from being rich, married, and siring three Aryan-looking kids. The fact he was a selfish prick had never troubled his parents who’d always glossed over Henry’s cold, cruel nature as a child; preferring to describe him as singularly driven. Actually, Oliver wouldn’t miss his parents, or Henry, much at all.
He was sadder about leaving his friends – particularly his university mates who’d all remained close despite being scattered over the world. They’d shed a genuine tear at his funeral and Oliver would miss the nights of reminiscing and endless piss-taking that only came from ten years of sharing each others lives. They were irreplaceable.
If he thought about it too much, he could get very upset about never seeing Siobhan again, the only love of his life. But she’d dumped him five years ago, had moved to New York with her semi-famous photographer boyfriend, and was never realistically going to be a part of his life - even if he was alive. Still, when he was felling drunk and melancholy, he’d fantasize about storming Siobhan’s spacious penthouse apartment in Manhattan and luring her back to his studio flat in West Acton. A drunken fantasy, admittedly, but the elimination of all hope wasn’t something Oliver wanted to think about. Besides, he was over her anyway.
On a brighter note, at least he wasn’t dead. More precisely, his spirit wasn’t dead, even if he’d left a lifeless corpse in a Fulham pub. That was a good thing, for certain. Oliver had never believed in God, not in the traditional biblical sense, and he’d always answered no to girlfriends when they asked if he believed in life after death (which they always did, usually two months into a relationship).
Quite simply, Oliver had never given religion much thought. His parents were committed atheists, he’d gone to secular schools, and none of his friends were particularly religious. The only time he’d been to church was for weddings and funerals, and he only prayed during tense football matches or when he was having sober sex and trying not to come too early – probably not the times God appreciated a call. But God was a proxy for fate or lady luck on those occasions; Oliver didn’t actually believe was being connected to a bearded man in the sky.
Yet here he was, in the after-life. Not the puffy clouds and angels version but certainly not the flaming volcanoes and demons version either.
He’d been spared
The immense wave of emotion Oliver felt when he grasped that his flawed little spirit had been granted immortality made him teary eyed with joy.
He had a second chance to put things right.
Oliver wasn’t feeling quite as peachy in the morning. For one, the right cheek where Brian had punched him had swollen up and was aching terribly. Secondly, it was raining. Hard.
He found shelter under the canopy of a fallen tree but the leaves weren’t dense enough to prevent the rain from seeping through. It was with some relief that he spied Brian’s size thirteen basketball boots planted in front of him.
“That you, Oliver?”
”Bloody hell, get inside mate. It’s teeming out here.”
“You promise not to hit me,” Oliver said, wincing at how pathetic he sounded.
“Of course not mate. Hey, I’m sorry about that. I thought I was helping but I forgot you English blokes are a bit fragile.”
The tree shook violently and an angry Oliver emerged, wet leaves and mud stuck in his hair. “Look here you bloody Kiwi oaf. You sucker punched me but next time I’ll be on my guard and believe me, I fight dirty. There’s nothing fragile about me, or English blokes in general, we just don’t belt each other for fun when the sheep are out of town.”
Brian’s mouth fell open and he took a step back. “Jeez, sorry mate I…….”
He couldn’t finish the sentence because he was doubled over with laughter. “Got you again!” he gloated between cracking himself up. “I knew you’d bite. You’re like one of those stroppy English terriers.”
Oliver was already stomping his way to Youssef’s cottage.
“C’mon Oliver, don’t be like that. I was only joking.”
By the time Oliver reached the front door he’d already forgiven Brian, who was too amiable to stay mad at for long. But he intended to make him grovel.
Youssef had kindly prepared the lads a bowl of beans, corn, and spinach for breakfast – obviously his signature dish – and Brian gave the largest serving to Oliver as a peace offering. Oliver accepted with mock disdain and the two were soon laughing and making fun of Ming’s thunderous flatulence like old school chums.
Now that Oliver had resigned to being dead he had a million questions but his fellow diners had few answers. Wherever they were, it didn’t come with a Lonely Planet guide.
Brian had only been around for five days and he’d spent half that time wandering the grasslands alone. Youssef was the first person he’d seen and he was using the cottage as a place to bunk while he figured out what to do next.
Youssef, who’d been around long enough to build a house, obviously knew more than both of them but trying to get a straight answer from him was like interviewing a politician about tax policy. The only hard fact that Brian had extracted in three days was that once a month, a wagon visited with supplies of food, candles, and other general provisions.
“Alcohol?” Oliver had immediately asked.
“I don’t know. I am forbidden from drinking,” Youssef replied.
“Well, when’s he due next?” Brian probed.
“He comes when he comes,” Youssef replied, which raised the temperature in the room a few degrees.
Youssef was equally cryptic when they debated just where they’d ended up in the whole heaven and hell totem pole. Oliver and Brian agreed that they were closer to heaven on the basis of the warm climate, the fountain of youth effect (although Brian’s was unnoticeable since he’d died at twenty-four), and the fact that no one struck them as particularly evil (Ming, they’d decided, was a dick not a demon).
Equally, no one was particularly saintly, either. Youssef was a kind, generous bloke but, as Oliver pointed out, he could’ve been a granny mugger back in Britain and you’d never know. Brian and Oliver were easier to rule out. Both admitted to drinking excessively, taking illicit drugs, occasionally being unfaithful to girlfriends, and spending most of their disposable income on themselves. Having never asked for absolution from their multitude of sins, it was highly unlikely that God would give them the keys to his kingdom.
“Who knew?” Brian shrugged, which summed it up, really.
“Maybe we should be grateful. Sleeping with another man’s wife, you should’ve gone straight to hell for that one,” Oliver pointed out.
“Yeah. Must’ve been touch and go,” Brian said sheepishly.
“So what is this? Purgatory?”
“Looks like it.”
“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Purgatory was always a miserable place in the movies. Lost souls with see-through bodies, flying around aimlessly and groaning for eternity.”
Brian was dubious. “That sounds like a haunted house, not purgatory. What does it say in the bible?”
“I wouldn’t know, I never read the bible. You?”
“Never seen one. Except in court; and that was just the cover.”
Oliver noticed that Youssef was smiling with amusement in the corner and asked him to explain.
“I apologise, I should not make light of your situation,” he said. “It is incredible to me that you are so spiritually ignorant.”
“Hold on a second,” Oliver objected. “We may not be religious but we still wound up in the same place as you. If you’re so enlightened, how come you weren’t whistled up the stairway to heaven?”
“These are not arguments I understand. Your concepts of heaven and God are foreign to me.”
“Okay, then wherever you were supposed to go: heaven, nirvana, the twenty-second astral plane, take your pick. My point is - all your praying and chanting didn’t do you any good. You’re in the same boat as us.”
“Yet only one of us has the oars,” Youssef responded sagely.
“Bugger the oars,” Brian said, foolishly trying to play Youssef’s game. “We’ve got a big fuck-off motor in our boat.”
“Which is only useful if you know how to steer,” Youssef said.
“Christ mate, give it a rest,” Brian groaned. “You’ve been nice to me Youssef but sometimes…”
“’s okay Brian,” Oliver quickly interjected. “Youssef’s right, we don’t know where we’re going. We don’t even know where we are.” As he spoke, Oliver saw an opportunity to extract some useful information from Youssef. Rather than railing against his philosophical mumbo-jumbo, it might be more productive to let him rant.
“Youssef, do you think you were sent here to help us?” Oliver asked, his voice dripping sincerity.
Youssef, who was crazy but not stupid, looked at Oliver doubtfully. “No,” he said. “I will help you but that is not why I’m here.”
“But you’re not helping, “ Oliver stressed. “Our corpses are barely stiff and neither of us have a clue where we are or what we’re supposed to do. You’ve obviously been here a while, can’t you tell us something? How many people live here? Are the girls good looking? Does God pop down for visits every Sunday – that sort of thing.”
“You want simple answers mon, but the questions are complicated.”
“Elaborate, please.”
“Okay, mon. You ask how many people are here? It is difficult to say – it is all a matter of perception. For years I thought I was alone. Then one day I walk over a hill and see a town with smoke and crowded streets. I never walk that way again so whether the town is still there, I do not know.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“The world is not a static place, mon,” Youssef said. “You roll your eyes at me Oliver but I have seen many changes since I’ve been here. Your concept of time and mine are not the same.”
“I get the whole ‘reality is a matter of perception’ thing, Youssef. All we’re asking for is your perspective. We just got here….” Oliver cut himself off, shaking his head. “Sod it, we’re going round in circles again.”
“My head hurts,” Brian moaned.
“So does mine,” Oliver agreed. He stood up and dusted himself off. “I’m out of here,” he declared. “Brian?”
“I’m with you.”
Oliver instinctively looked around for a jacket or bag, then realised he could leave that very second. It was amazing how quickly decisions could be made without the burden of possessions. The prospect of stepping into the unknown, coupled with the comfort of having a like-minded travelling companion, gave him tingles up his spine.
They thanked Youssef profusely for his hospitality, yelled a goodbye to the sleeping Ming, and headed for the door. Youssef, who expressed genuine sorrow at their sudden departure, offered some parting advice.
”I respect your decision, “ he said. “I hope you find what you’re looking for but always remember – you are both here for a reason and until you discover God’s purpose, you may walk for many miles and not travel an inch.”
“Thanks for that,” Oliver said. “At the moment, God’s telling me to get the hell out of here.”
“See you Youssef,” Brian said. “By the way, Ming’s nicking your food. That’s why her farts all the time.”
“I know mon,” said Youssef. “That’s why I stopped using garlic.”
(to be continued)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Part 3: A fellow guest at Youssef's house reveals some hard truths about Oliver's whereabouts.

Youssef’s cottage was actually bigger than you average family home, with a wide hallway leading to four bedrooms and a spacious living/cooking area. He’d saved a fortune on decorating though. There was only a scattering of furniture - just a few large rocks that served as stools, some woven flax mattresses, and candles of all shapes and sizes that gave the interior a red, earthy glow. But while it was sparsely furnished, the homely atmosphere put Oliver instantly at ease.
The only unsettling thing about Youssef’s house was the three-hundred-pound skinhead dressed as a Tibetan monk who was sitting cross-legged on the living room floor.
“Hello,” Oliver greeted.
There was no response from the monk, whose eyes were half-closed. Oliver guessed he was in a deep trance and whispered to Youssef, “What’s his story?”
“His story has only just begun.”
“A name would be useful.”
“Ming. No last name then?”
“You know another Ming, mon?”
”Good point. And where’s Ming from, Colchester?”
Youssef smiled patiently. “You seem obsessed with where people are from, mon. You should be concerned with who they are, not the pile of dirt they once stood on.”
“Sorry, I’ve embarrassed myself again. It must be my empty stomach. You wouldn’t have that food handy?”
“Of course, mon. You are hungry, you must eat. Pull up a stone.”
Oliver was grateful to rest his legs. Despite his recent fitness boost, he was worn out from walking half the day without so much as a pork scratching. A week ago, he would’ve flat out collapsed after such a long trek.
The warm aroma wafting in from the kitchen raised Oliver’s expectations for dinner. He’d half expected the eccentric Youssef to serve him flax and raw beetles but the cooking smells were hitting all the right senses. And despite numerous offers to give Youssef a hand, he was told to stay away from the kitchen – the sign of a passionate chef.
Oliver was too interested in the prospect of food to pay attention to the meditating Ming, who didn’t look like a great conversationalist anyway. The only sound that emanated from Ming was a great waffling fart that emanated from his ample arse, a thunderous noise that would have frightened the wildlife within a two-mile radius, yet Ming didn’t even flex a nostril. Oliver was compelled to say pardon on his behalf and held his nose for the next fifteen minutes till he was sure the danger had passed.
By the time Youssef emerged with three steaming bowls of something delicious, Oliver was almost insane with hunger. Despite this, Oliver remembered his manners and offered the largest bowl to Ming.
“He won’t take it mon” Youssef said. “Ming is on a hunger strike.”
“Really? For how long?”
“He’s on his twenty-second day.”
“You’re kidding,” Olive said, taking a closer look at Ming’s blimp-like form. “That’s a long time between hamburgers.”
“He only has eight days left,” Youssef informed.
“At least there’s no danger of him fading away.”
Youssef grimaced. “He can hear you, mon. Even when he’s in a deep trance he’s aware of his surroundings.”
“Sorry,” Oliver said, genuinely embarrassed. “Sorry Ming.”
In that instant Ming’s eyes slid open, his dark, shiny pupils fixing directly on Oliver. The angry glare suggested that his silence should not be construed as forgiveness.
“Hello,” Oliver said meekly. “Did you have a nice nap?”
Ming offered nothing and Oliver began to squirm in his rock. “Didn’t your mother tell you it was rude to stare,” Oliver said, trying to laugh. Ming, however, did not appear amused. The silent attention began to bother Oliver.
“Does he speak English?” Oliver asked.
Youssef nodded.
“Good. Then he’ll understand the meaning of – please stop staring you fat bastard.”
“Of course, mon. But don’t be hasty –‘
“- Ming, either say something or this clay bowl is heading straight for your head.”
“Oliver, I don’t like aggression like that in my house.”
“Sorry Youssef but…..”
Oliver’s apology was cut short by the sight of Ming rising from the floor and shuffling out of the living area, leaving an unpleasant trail of body odour in his wake. They listened to him walk down the hallway and out the front door that he slammed like a petulant toddler.
When Oliver was certain he’d left, he repeated his apology. “Sorry for swearing Youssef but your friend Ming was pushing it.”
“Pushing it how, mon?”
“Staring, refusing to say hello, farting without saying pardon.”
“You have to understand, Ming has taken a vow of silence.”
It was Oliver’s turn to stare. “You’re not a big fan of offering information up front, are you Youssef?”
“How would I know what information you require, mon?”
“I dunno,” Oliver mumbled under his breath. “Common sense I suppose but that’s clearly out of the question.”
As irritating as Youssef could be, his heart was in the right place and Oliver didn’t want to offend him, even if he was just a bizarre figment of his imagination. “Anyway, enough about Ming,” Oliver said cheerily. “Let’s eat.”
Dinner was a hearty stew of beans, corn, spinach and assorted herbs with crusty bread to mop it all up. It was simple fare, thrown together, but it hit the spot for Oliver whose mood brightened immediately. The one thing he did miss, even though it’s what got him into trouble in the first place, was a cold Guinness to wash it down.
After licking their bowls clean, Youssef retired to meditate while Oliver found a spot in the corner of the living room and shut his eyes – not to sleep but to give his brain a rest from the intensive theorising it had been subjected to. If he were going to wake up from a coma, he’d need his wits about him.
Oliver had managed to doze for half an hour when the front door slammed and he sat up rigid, steeling himself for the return of Ming. But instead of a chunky Buddha, a more conservatively clad human being entered the living room. The hulking young man, who would’ve been frightening if it weren’t for the broad grin, looked like a bouncer at a mid eighties rock concert: Converse basketball boots, faded Levis that were a size too small, a black George Thorogood and the Destroyers tour t-shirt, and a perfect example of the sandy-haired mullet.
“Hey mate,” he greeted cheerfully in a caricature accent that Oliver couldn’t immediately place. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Name’s Brian. Brian Reid.”
“Nice to meet you,” Oliver said, extending a hand which Brian shook like he was trying to get the last drop of tomato sauce out of the bottle.
“Oliver Tait. Are you living here, Brian?”
Brian shrugged. “At the moment, but I’ve only been here four days.” He gave Oliver another once over and grinned. “It’s a bloody relief to meet someone normal, that’s for sure. Ming and his bloody hungry strike – you know he gets up in the middle of the night and stuffs himself silly. Youssef’s got no idea.”
Oliver laughed. “I only arrived a few hours ago but I knew he wasn’t right.”
“He’s taking Youssef for a ride, that’s for sure. Where are you from, Oliver?”
“West London. You’re from…..New Zealand, right?”
“Yup, Palmerston North, born and bred. I thought you were going to say Aussie, most Yanks can’t tell the difference.“
“Actually, I’m English,” Oliver said, his hopes of intelligent conversation sinking fast.
“Nah, really?” Brian said, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “Hang on, I thought you said you were from London.”
“London is in England,” Oliver said patiently, aware of Brian’s towering frame. “It’s the capital of the UK.”
“Yeah exactly, the UK. That’s another name for America.”
“No. It’s not. “
“Yeah it is, my cousin lives there,” Brian said, becoming visibly agitated. “Are you calling him a liar?”
"No, of course not. Are you getting UK and USA mixed up, perhaps?"
"I dunno. Are you?"
Oliver wondered how anyone could be so monumentally stupid, even a character in a coma dream. Just as he was about to invent a hasty excuse about a bathroom emergency, Brian whacked him on the back like he was beating dust from a carpet, laughing hysterically. Oliver knew instantly that he’d been had.
“Jeez I had you going mate,” Brian said between guffaws, clearly delighted by the whole exercise. “You thought I was big bloody idiot, eh?” He put on a faux posh accent that sounded vaguely like Oliver. “Actually, I’m English. La-de-da.”
“Very funny,” Oliver said, smiling despite himself.
“Sorry mate, that’s the first laugh I’ve had since I got here. Ming’s got his vow of silence and Youssef left his sense of humour in the land of the living.”
Oliver took a while to compute what Brian had said.
“Sorry, what do you mean he left his sense of humour in the land of the living?”
“I mean, whatever sense of humour he had back home, it didn’t make it here.”
“Here being?”
Brian’s smile dropped an inch and he looked at Oliver curiously. “Haven’t you worked it out yet? Maybe you should sit down.”
“I’d rather stand. Please, tell me what you know.”
“Okay. Jeez, I feel like a cop when they have to tell someone their kid’s died.”
“I’m a big boy, I can take it.”
“Alright,” he said, putting a reassuring hand on Oliver’s shoulder. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re dead.”
Oliver chuckled softly to himself.
“You’re taking it pretty well,” Brian observed.
“Sorry, it’s just I knew you were going to say that,” Oliver said.
“Then why did you ask?”
“Confirmation,” Oliver said, and then felt the air knocked out of him, like a heavy bag had been swung into his gut. He staggered back, his legs giving way.
“That’s right, take a seat,” Brian said, helping him to a nearby rock.
“What happened?” Oliver asked, perplexed.
“The truth hit you,” Brian said. “Same thing happened to me.”
“There’s no truth. Not in what you said.”
“That’s called denial, mate. The first step towards coping with being dead is admitting that you’re dead.”
“I’m not dead. I’m in a coma.”
“A coma? So you reckon this is just a really long dream, eh? And I’m just an imaginary person, I don’t really exist.”
“No offence,” Oliver muttered, realising how rude that sounded.
“None taken. It’s sweet you think of me as the man of your dreams.”
“Not really in a joking mood, Brian.”
“Hey, you made me.”
”Okay, I’ll be serious. Look mate, it’ll take a while to get used to but the fact is, you’re dead. You’re not in a coma. This isn’t a dream you’re going to wake up from. When you go to sleep tonight, you’re going to wake up right back here, with the weird bloody grass and the thirty-degree heat and mad Ming down the hall. That’s the new reality.”
Oliver took it all in, not fully believing but at least considering the possibility that he might be dead. It had crossed his mind earlier but he’d quickly stamped it out - the thought of dying at such a young age was too depressing for words.
“How can you be so sure?” Oliver asked, looking for holes in the argument.
“Well, I remember dying,” he said ruefully. Oliver nodded, encouraging him to continue. “Okay, a few days ago I was screwing my girlfriend on top of her dishwasher, and she’d just switched it on so it was really hard to hear above all the water and the screaming. Anyway, her eyes started bulging out of her sockets and I knew she wasn’t ready to come yet so I turn around and there he was. Her bloody husband, who was supposed to be at the track all day, he was standing in the kitchen pointing a gun at me. I didn’t have a chance to say anything, he pulled the trigger straight away – hit me right here.” Brian pointed to the middle of his chest. “I was fucked, I knew that the moment the bullet hit me. I don’t know how long I was alive, probably only a few seconds. But I was breathing long enough to see my girlfriend running to her husband, crying and pleading for forgiveness while I was haemorrhaging to death on the bloody lino.”
Brian’s indignation at his girlfriend’s last minute betrayal made Oliver chuckle. Brian laughed along. “Okay, I suppose I had it coming. But the main point is, I can remember the sensation of dying. I felt the life drain out of me and when I woke up, I was here.”
“You couldn’t just be in a coma?”
“Nah, I died for sure.”
“Maybe. But then again, if I’m in a coma, then you don’t exist and the fact you remember dying doesn’t prove anything. I put those words in your mouth. That story about being shot by your husband’s girlfriend was just my imagination talking.”
Brian slapped Oliver in the face, hard enough to make his eyes water.
“What the fuck did you do that for?”
“Don’t blame me. Your imagination slapped you in the face.”
“Please don’t do that again.”
“I’m trying to help you, mate. It hurt though, eh?”
“Of course it did,” Oliver said, fingering his tender left cheek.
“Pain’s not like that in dreams, it’s not that precise. Dreams can’t distinguish between that hot stinging sensation after you’ve been slapped in the face and the deep, bruising pain of being punched.”
“Rubbish,” Oliver said, and immediately regretted it.
Brian walloped Oliver on the other cheek, this time using his fist, sending Oliver tumbling off his rock.
“Jesus Christ!”
“Is it dull and bruising?”
“You’re fucking insane,” Oliver said venomously, holding his right cheek like it was about to fall off. It was, in fact, a dull and bruising pain but he wasn’t going to legitimise Brian’s crazy experiment.
“Don’t be a baby, I used my left hand.”
“Both your hands are like frozen coconuts,” Oliver complained.
“I hit like a girl with my left,” Brian said, rubbing his knuckles. “But you can feel the difference, eh? Two different types of pain but both of them very real.”
“You haven’t proven anything,” Oliver said, staying safely on the floor.
“Jeez you’re a tough customer. Don’t worry - I know a foolproof way of convincing you this isn’t a dream. Pain from getting hit in the face is one thing but if you get kneed hard enough in the balls…”
Oliver fled the living room and was out the front door before Brian had a chance to finish. Running into darkness, he heard Brian shout: “Only joking Ollie!” before his laughter echoed through the night.
(next exclusive chapter - Saturday 19 August))